Gaston De Cardenas / Reuters

FBI, Swiss authorities go after FIFA officials with corruption charges

Arrested officials are among 14 people named in a 47-count indictment by the Justice Department for 'rampant' corruption

International soccer's governing body was in disarray Wednesday after Swiss prosecutors opened criminal proceedings into FIFA's awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and seven senior figures in the game were arrested pending extradition to the U.S. in a separate probe of "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted" corruption.

The two inquiries have plunged the world's most popular sport into turmoil ahead of a planned FIFA congress in Zurich, due to open Friday.

U.S. authorities said nine soccer officials and five sports media and promotions executives faced corruption charges involving more than $150 million in bribes. Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials who are now awaiting extradition to the United States.

In announcing the U.S. charges at a press conference on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the individuals under indictment "were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest, and protect the integrity of the game. Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves."

"As charged in the indictment, the defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world," said FBI Director James Comey, standing alongside Lynch. "Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA."

Sepp Blatter, the Swiss head of FIFA, has not been arrested, but the indictment does include several people who are just below him in the hierarchy of sport's wealthiest body.

FIFA, meanwhile, said that Friday's presidential election would go ahead as planned, with Blatter aiming for a fifth term.

Asian Football Confederation said it supports Blatter's bid for another term, and opposes any move to delay Friday's scheduled elections.

But UEFA, European soccer's powerful governing body — whose president Michel Platini has been a vocal critic of Blatter — subsequently called for those elections to be postponed. UEFA indicated that its representatives could boycott the congress altogether.

Greg Dyke, chairman of the English Football Association, said he was unconvinced by Blatter's declaration that FIFA can regain the trust of soccer fans by stepping up efforts to root out corruption. 

"I think the time has come where the damage this has done to FIFA is so great that it can't be re-built while Blatter is there so UEFA has got to try to force him out," said Dyke.FIFA also ruled out a revote of the World Cups won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

The Swiss prosecutors' office said in a statement that they seized “electronic data and documents” at FIFA's headquarters on Wednesday as part of their probe. And Swiss police said they will question 10 FIFA executive committee members who took part in the World Cup votes in December 2010.

The Swiss investigation against “persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering” again throws into the doubt the integrity of the voting.

“FIFA is fully cooperating with the investigation and is supporting the collection of evidence in this regard,” the organization said in a statement.

"This is a difficult time for football, the fans and for FIFA as an organization," Blatter said in a subsequent press release. "We understand the disappointment that many have expressed and I know that the events of today will impact the way in which many people view us.

His statement went on to say that as "unfortunate as these events are, it should be clear that we welcome the actions and the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football."

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that two current FIFA vice presidents were among those arrested and indicted: Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. The others are Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas of Britain, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Jose Maria Marin of Brazil.

All seven are connected with the regional confederations of North and South America and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Nine of the 14 that were indicted by the Justice Department are soccer officials, while four are sports marketing executives and another works in broadcasting. Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president from Trinidad and Tobago, was among those indicted. On Wednesday, he surrendered to police and appeared briefly in court, during which a judge read 12 charges against hum and granted Trinidad $2.5 million bail, or US$395,000, with conditions. Police said there was a delay in processing Warner's bail and he would spend one night in a lockup. Before turning himself in, Warner said he had done nothing wrong.

Later on Wednesday, FIFA banned 11 individuals from carrying out "any football-related activities on a national and international level" in response to the indictments.

The Swiss prosecutors' office said the U.S. probe was separate from its investigation but that authorities were working together.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is also a FIFA executive committee member, told the Associated Press, “We've got nothing to hide.”

“We're prepared to show everything,” Mutko said in a telephone interview. “We've always acted within the law.”

Qatari soccer officials declined to comment.

The U.S. case involves bribes “totaling more than $100 million” linked to commercial deals dating to the 1990s for soccer tournaments in the United States and Latin America, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said. The Justice Department said the corruption is linked to World Cup qualifying matches and South America's continental championship.

Dozens of soccer officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA congress and presidential election, where Blatter is widely expected to win re-election at the helm of the governing body of world soccer.

Blatter had been scheduled to attend a meeting of the Confederation of African Football in a different downtown Zurich hotel, but he canceled his appearance.

Blatter's only opponent in Friday's presidential election, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, said it was “a sad day for football,” but declined to comment further.

The arrests were made at the lakeside Baur au Lac Hotel in downtown Zurich, long favored as a place for senior FIFA officials to stay. It was the stage for intense lobbying for votes ahead of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting decisions in December 2010.

In Florida, a small group of agents from the FBI and IRS executed search warrants at CONCACAF headquarters in Miami Beach.

Neither agency offered comment on the investigation.

The North American regional body, known as CONCACAF, reported itself to U.S. tax authorities in 2012. Then based in New York, the organization had not paid taxes over several years when its president was Warner and secretary general was Chuck Blazer of the United States.

Warner left soccer in 2011 to avoid FIFA sanctions in a bribery scandal during that year's presidential election. Blazer left in 2013 and has pleaded guilty to charges, the Justice Department said in Wednesday's statement.

Warner's successor as CONCACAF leader and FIFA vice president is Webb, who was staying at the Baur au Lac this week.

The Swiss Federal Office of Justice said in its statement that U.S. authorities suspect the arrested officials of having received or paid bribes totaling millions of dollars and that the crimes were agreed to and prepared in the U.S., and payments carried out via U.S. banks.

“The bribery suspects — representatives of sports media and sports promotion firms — are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to the soccer functionaries (FIFA delegates) and other functionaries of FIFA sub-organizations totaling more than $100 million,“ the FOJ statement said.

A statement in German added that the probe involved tournaments in the United States.

International media gathered at the street entrance of the Baur au Lac in scenes reminiscent of the World Cup votes won by Russia and Qatar more than four years ago.

Then, former President Bill Clinton was inside meeting FIFA voters who later rejected the American bid in favor of Qatar, and Britain's Prince William was part of the losing English bid team.

Suspicions of vote-buying and wrongdoing in those bidding contests have dogged FIFA ever since.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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